Lucky Dog Picture House at Wilton’s Music Hall, London
So, what are your favourite films about film-making? How about Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973), or Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) or perhaps its Godard’s Le Mepris (1963) or more recently Altman’s The Player (1992)? But to find another genuine, albeit little known, contender for inclusion in this list you have to go a long way back, all the way, in fact, to 1928 and the highly original and wonderfully entertaining Shooting Stars, directed by A V Bramble and Anthony Asquith. And it is the welcome opportunity of seeing this film once again with live musical accompaniment that brings us tonight to the famous Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End for a screening organised by the Lucky Dog Picture House.
Mae Feather (Annette Benson) and her husband Julian Gordon (Brian Ahern) are film stars at the Zenith Film Studios. Julian is fairly down to earth but Mae is something of a diva, unpopular with the rest of the cast and crew. She is also conducting an illicit affair with Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthorp) a star of slapstick comedies at the studio. At an evening rendezvous together, Mae is concerned that Andy has just signed a contract with an American studio and says she would like to go with him. On leaving Andy’s apartment she gives him a key to her own flat telling him that Julian will be away the following night. Returning home she finds Julian cleaning his shotgun and she mistakenly puts one of the shotgun cartridges in her purse thinking it is a lipstick.
The next day, Andy is away on location shooting. When a chase scene goes wrong, the press report that he has been injured but it is in fact the stunt doubl e that has been hurt. Meanwhile, Mae is signing a contract with an American studio but is uncomfortable when Julian says he will go with her. The contract also contains a morals clause by which it will be nullified if May is involved in any scandalous behaviour.
That evening, Mae is waiting at her flat for Andy but is flustered when Julian arrives back unexpectedly after his studio schedule is changed at the last minute. They then hear on the radio the (false) news that Andy has been badly injured. While Julian goes to phone for more details Andy arrives and lets himself in with Mae’s key and Julian sees Mae and Andy embrace. He throws Andy out and tells Mae he is divorcing her and she remembers the morals clause in her new contract American contract and what the sandal of divorce would mean!
The next day, in the studio Mae and Andy are shooting the final scene of their film which requires the villain to shoot at Andy. The props man loads the gun with blank cartridges just as Mae remembers the live cartridge she still has in her purse and manages to replace it with one of the two blanks in the shotgun. But when the scene is filmed, the villain only fires the blank cartridge at Andy. The gun, still with the live cartridge in it, is then sent to the next stage where it is needed for a scene involving Andy and when it is fired at him he falls dead. On seeing the spent live cartridge Andy realises Mae’s intention.
Much later in an extras canteen at the studio, two actresses are reading from a fanzine about the former star known as Mae Feather. Meanwhile, Zenith’s new star director Julian Gordon calls for an extra for a scene he is shooting and the now forgotten Mae is selected from amongst the extras. When the scene is over, she leaves the set without Julian recognising her…or does he?
Thoughts on the film
In the opening credits of Shooting Stars, A V Bramble was listed as director and Anthony Asquith (image, right) the writer. But in reality Bramble had little more than a supervisory role while the real director was Asquith himself. Even more impressively, given the film’s quality and startling originality, it was Asquith’s directing début. Asquith represented a new force in British cinema, alongside contemporaries such as producer Michael Balcom or emerging director Alfred Hitchcock, with a greater awareness of international film theories and developments, and a desire to incorporate these in British pictures of the time rather than simply churn out more of what had become an increasingly staid and tired British movie product.
And certainly a perceptibly new style of film-making was discernable right from the start of Shooting Stars, with a wonderful overhead tracking shot lasting well over 90 seconds that followed the actors as they moved from one film set in the studio, up a flight of stairs and onto another set. Similarly innovative shots were used, for example, as the stunt man careened down the hill on a bicycle or as Andy swung on the chandelier before being shot. And there was a stunning shot towards the end as the church set onto which Mae was walking seemingly disassembled as we followed her forward.
In making one of the first ever features to focus on the film industry itself (probably tied with King Vidor’s Show People, also from 1928), Asquith highlighted not only the technical unrealities of the film making process itself ( the western, for example, being shot in a studio, the cowboy’s horse just a wooden dummy, or the church being largely a painted backdrop) but he also effectively showed up the falseness of the characters themselves. To the fanzine reporter, Mae was loved by all, who in turn loved furry animals and birds, a fan of Shakespeare and someone who had found her ‘ideal mate’ in Julian. In reality, the spoiled diva was loathed by cast and crew alike, hated animals and was two-timing her husband. As for Andy,when the slap-stick clown took off his make-up he was revealed to be a mean-spirited little man.
For much of its length, the film had a wonderful lightness of tone and some very humorous moments (for example, when the crew gave the dove which pecked Mae a medal ‘for valour’). Even as tension mounted, as Andy and Mae were caught ‘in flagrante’ or in the ‘will or won’t Julian be shot’ scene, you can’t quite believe that tragedy will ensue. Yet even after seeing the film several times, it still comes as something of a shock when Andy is actually killed and the film’s tone changes so markedly.
In this more sombre spirit, the shooting of the final ‘film within a film’ scenes between Mae and Julian acquire a quite riveting intensity, as she realised what she had done and Julian realised it was meant for him. And the film’s concluding scenes, as Mae recalled what she once had and asks of the director the doubly-loaded question ‘Do you want me any more?’ before slowly walking out of the now darkened studio, has such a poignant quality.
Annette Benson (image, right) was superb as Mae, carrying off the spoiled diva role with aplomb. But there was so much more to her performance than this. Her scenes with Andy proved positively steamy, which was very much down to her rather than her co-star and she was certainly no shrinking violet in the relationship (although it was not clear quite what she saw in the older and somewhat miserable Andy, other than perhaps a meal-ticket to America). Then there was a very telling scene in which after being kissed by Julian she wiped the kiss from her lips with a look almost of disgust.
Very little is known of Benson’s life. Born in 1895, she made her first film appearance in 1921 in Love at the Wheel. She co-starred in several of the Squibs series of films with Betty Balfour before making a number of films in Germany and France. On returning to England, she got what is probably her most acclaimed role in Shooting Stars. She went on to make half a dozen more silents, although gradually dropping down the cast list and then two talkies in 1931 before disappearing completely. Even the date of her death is open to question, variously given as 1965 and 1979.
Playing Andy, Donald Calthorp (image,left) was also good as the ageing and slightly creepy comic, convincing in his initial uncertainty over taking his relationship with Mae further but then, once having decided and being caught out, resignedly accepting the embarrassment of being thrown out by Julian. Calthorp, grandson of playwright Dion Boucicault, began acting on stage in 1906 and appeared in his first film short in 1916 but after starring as Horatio Nelson in Maurice Elvey’s 1918 film of the same name did not make another film until Shooting Stars a decade later. In 1930, while entertaining a female film extra in his dressing room the actresses’ dress caught fire and she died from her injuries. Although this ended Calthorp’s marriage and supposedly affected his career he continued to make films until 1940 when, shortly after the death of his two eldest sons at Dunkirk, he died of a heart attack while filming Major Barbara(1941)
Brian Aherne (image, right) as Julian was probably the least of the three main characters, being a little wooden in parts, although he was excellent (as were the two small boys) in the scenes of him watching from the cinema stalls as he and Mae appeared in a film on screen. Born in 1902, Aherne made his film debut in the crime drama The Eleventh Commandment ( 1924) with Fay Compton. He went on to star in another classic Asquith silent Underground (1928) before going on to a long career in talking films and television before retiring in 1967. He died in 1986.
Director Anthony Asquith went on to make three more silent films, two of which, Underground (1928) and Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), are amongst the most acclaimed British silent films of all time. He then went on to co-direct his first talkie, Tell England (1931) along with Geoffrey Barkas. This film, the story of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in WW1, was as innovative a talkie as Shooting Stars had been a silent. Combining the passion and sensitivity of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) with action scenes anticipating those of Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Tell England remains a virtually unknown masterpiece, hidden away in the depths of the National Film Archives. Do see it if ever you get the chance!
After this, Asquith had a long string of critical and popular successes including Pygmalion (1938), We Dive At Dawn (1943), Way to the Stars (1945), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Millionairess (1960) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964) before his death in 1966.
So, all in all a cracking good picture. Well acted and beautifully directed, the film positively sparkles, particularly in comparison with the imaginary films being made within it (being typical of much the pap being made at the time and which Asquith was hoping to overturn). The way in which the plots of these films within the film were used effectively to mirror the ‘real life’ happenings of the cast was particularly effective. Lastly, the film was praiseworthy also in offering a convincing picture of the silent film studio in operation with, for example, the on-set musicians to provide some atmosphere, the chalk board (remember, silent film, no need for a clapper board!) and the multiple adjacent film sets.
Complementing the screening superbly was the musical accompaniment from pianist Sam Watts from the Lucky Dog Picture House. Performing his own score of largely ragtime and jazz based themes, this flowed beautifully. Particularly challenging was the need to switch moods of accompaniment between three ‘films within the film’ as well as the ‘real life’ events affecting the film’s characters. The accompaniment contributed effectively to building the tension prior to Andy’s death and then nicely reflected the subsequent change in mood of the film leading to its painfully moving finale.
A word of praise also for to Wilton’s Music Hall, a wonderfully atmospheric venue in which an appreciative audience, many seemingly new to silent film, appeared to have had great time and will hopefully search out further silent film screenings.
(NB Shooting Stars is available on DVD/BluRay from BFI.)